Center for Arms Control

Bolton Ignores the True Costs of Military Action against Iran

By Ari Kattan

In a recent article in The Weekly Standard, John Bolton, an unofficial advisor to the Romney campaign, blasted the Obama administration’s policy of sanctions and negotiations to halt Iran’s nuclear program. That Bolton opposes negotiations with Iran as a futile exercise is well known. What is noteworthy about this article—and Bolton’s viewpoint in general—is the lack of serious discussion about the military option that he proposes as an alternative.

It is true that sanctions and negotiations might not be successful in stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But Bolton offers no evidence that military action would be more successful. The most he can say about his preferred alternative is “Are we prepared to use force at a time of our choosing and through means optimal for us rather than for Iran’s air defenses, or will we simply allow Iran to have nuclear weapons under the delusion it can be contained and deterred?” Not only does Bolton fail to show why military action would be successful where sanctions and diplomacy have failed, he also avoids discussing the costs and potential consequences of a military strike on Iran.

Why is evidence for such a claim necessary—isn’t it self-evident that physically destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities will deny them the bomb? Many proponents of such action point to Israel’s alleged success in preventing both Iraq and Syria from advancing their nuclear programs through air strikes. These comparisons, however, do not stand up to scrutiny. Both Iraq and Syria had one nuclear facility, located above ground, and their nuclear programs were not major sources of regime legitimacy or national pride.

Iran, by contrast, has multiple nuclear facilities, many of them underground and hardened, scattered throughout its vast territory. It is an immensely popular program within Iran, even among reformers. And whereas Iraq and Syria had relatively primitive programs, Iran’s nuclear program is notably advanced and its scientific community has already mastered the technology needed to continue a nuclear program after an attack. These are the facts that have led many US government officials and military leaders to conclude that an air campaign would only delay, not prevent, Iran’s nuclear program.

In addition to not providing evidence for why military action would be successful, Bolton and other advocates of military action have not discussed its true costs and potential consequences.

First, if Iran hasn’t decided to develop a nuclear arsenal—and many US intelligence officialsbelieve it hasn’t—such an attack might encourage them to do so, creating the monster that military action sought to destroy. Furthermore, the type of military action necessary to severely set back Iran’s nuclear program would probably require more than just air strikes.

Locating and destroying all of Iran’s nuclear facilities permanently can’t be done from the air alone, and given Iran’s size, any ground operation would require huge numbers of soldiers to secure territory and supply routes. Keeping the Strait of Hormuz open and responding to Iranian retaliation would also require large numbers of soldiers. All of this at a time when the strength of the U.S. military is greatly strained by two decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the region is still in an unstable period of transition.

Military engagements also have a tendency to expand through escalation and unforeseen events, especially in a complex and problem-ridden region like the Persian Gulf. Iraq was never supposed to be an eight year commitment, but, to paraphrase a famous Prussian general, no war plan survives first contact with the enemy. It is not out of the realm of possibility that an air campaign against Iran could evolve into a land invasion with our forces getting bogged down for years.

Loose talk of war without a serious discussion of the true costs and potential outcomes is dangerous and disingenuous. The public deserves more from Bolton than vague and unsupported hints at military action without an explanation of the consequences.

Ari Kattan is an intern at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

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